Bunnies on the Bayou celebrates its 35th anniversary.
by David Goldberg
On April 20, the benevolent Bunnies on the Bayou celebrates 35 years of charitable bashes at the Wortham Center’s Fish Plaza. The annual Easter Sunday blowout began as a backyard gathering with good intentions and has evolved into a Houston staple with long lines and even longer checks. But the main Bunnies principle is timeless: party hard and raise money for the community. OutSmart spoke with some of the group’s most notable members about its history and the future of the Bunnies.
Down to Business
TOM SIMS (president, 2001–2002):
“From day one, this organization is always focused on putting the money collected at the door directly back into the community—to support them. That was our mission statement from the beginning when we set up Bunnies on the Bayou, Inc., when we became a 501(c)(3) charity, and it’s still the mission statement today. That’s what I’m most proud of.”
JAY PRESSLEY (president, 2008):
“All of the money that we raise stays local. That’s a thing that I always bring up. The money stays here locally. All the money collected that day at the event is automatically given to charity. It can’t go to anything else.”
ROGER BARRERA (president, 2013–2014):
“Last year, we raised over $110,000 and supported 16 different charities.”
CHRISTIAN ROGERS (president, 2007):
“The best part about the organization is that this is an all-volunteer group. Not one person is compensated for the time they put in, and they definitely don’t get the recognition that a lot of them deserve.”
JACK BERGER (president, 2010–2013):
“There’s nothing better than being the person who signs the giant check, providing that kind of moment. The [beneficiaries] really don’t know if they’re going to get $1,000 or $10,000. Just seeing the expressions of the beneficiaries on the day that they get their checks makes it all worthwhile.“
“One of my most vivid memories is standing out in the rain on Easter Sunday in 2004 holding up poster-board signs saying: Event Cancelled Due to the Weather. I caught the flu from standing out in the rain, just trying to make sure everyone knew what was going on. Even though it was pouring down rain, we still had people driving by Fish Plaza, rolling down the window, saying, “Is the event cancelled?” It was literally pouring sideways.”
“You can imagine the frustration on the day of the event, with everyone running around like chickens without their heads. Every year I say the same thing: Why am I doing this at 7 a.m.? When we present the check, and when you see the smiles on everybody’s faces, you realize why you are working so hard.”
“My favorite moment was when we had the Bonnet Contest. One guest showed up with a sombrero that he decorated to look like a yard. He had put fake grass and a fake picket fence up, and he bought five different chicks, all in the colors of the rainbow flag. He raised them from when they were born to when they hatched, and walked around with that hat with the chicks in it. It was alive!”
The Many Breeds of Bunny
JOHN COX (host, 2008–present):
“We’ve created a much more diverse audience than we had in the earlier years. Our demographic can’t be pinned down to one particular group. We cross all the generations, from the early 20s to the later years.”
JACK BERGER: “It’s definitely a cross section. We’ve made an effort to not just be a young gay men’s kind of party. And we want the women to feel like they are involved. Our beneficiaries come from across the board. Hopefully our attendees are not just LGBT, but allies and straight friends who want to party for the cause.”
TOM SIMS: “The demographic has totally changed from when I was involved as a host. Our guests were the majority of people that did not frequent the bars on a weekly basis. These were predominately professional people that had nothing better to do on an Easter Sunday, because they did not have families to spend time with.
VINCE FLICKINGER (president, 2009–2010): We’ve seen it shift to where people who are friends of our community are starting to attend. We sometimes have grandmothers who happen to walk by an event and ask what it is. In the past we were very careful about our wording, but now we just tell them, and they pay and leave after experiencing a bit of shock and awe, but having had a wonderful time.
Adapting and Evolving
TOM SIMS: When I started, we collected food for Stone Soup, and that was the admission into the event. We didn’t collect money at all. But the party was exactly the same [as it is now]. It wasn’t until we became a 501(c)(3) that we had to change the rules. Before I joined, back in the first days, it was a backyard party, and then it escalated and grew into what it is today. It was small scale. We only had two bars set up. That was it. Many people who attend the party now didn’t live through the true HIV era. This was before medications were even involved. When someone was diagnosed with HIV, they were shunned, and there was no alternative but to hope that it didn’t take them out. They had to hope that their medications wouldn’t take them out. There was much better cohesion of support in the community. We looked out for each other. We tried to take care of each other. We tried to support each other.
VINCE FLICKINGER: The year I joined, the 26th, was when Bunnies rebranded itself. After 25 years, it was time for a little bit of a change. We came up with our new logo and decided to lead the party [in new directions]. It was very interesting to see the mix of the old and the new really working together to enhance the party. Our goal was to be more economical. Over the last six years, we’ve started to see the amount of money we’ve raised grow considerably. It’s all because we broke traditions of what we had done in the past.
JOHN COX: It’s really grown into a much more professional organization. We’ve engaged more with organizations and corporations to help us fund the events. We recently had Bud Light, Ketel One, and Jägermeister as corporate sponsors. We’ve gone beyond our immediate community in the Montrose.
CHRISTIAN ROGERS: There’s going to be times of challenge and times of celebration, but at the end of the day, this is a group of volunteers wanting to make the best event possible. It creates long-lasting friendships and relationships that I will have for the rest of my life. You don’t think you’ll get it all done, but it all comes together; you’ll have great friendships, and great success that comes out of it. The future of the organization is limitless. It keeps getting bigger and better every single year. It’s great to see.
To learn more about the Bunnies and this year’s beneficiaries, to volunteer, or to buy discounted tickets for the 35th Bunnies on the Bayou party, visit bunniesonthebayou.org.
David Goldberg is a regular contributor to OutSmart magazine.